All of ’em. I’ll speak for all the agencies right now.

The State Board is setting instream flows for the rivers of the northern San Joaquin Valley.  Their first estimate is that districts must leave about 40% of the unimpaired flow in the rivers.  That would be about 390,000af more water in the rivers than now; with our rule of thumb, we can estimate 130,000 acres of irrigated lands going out of production.  The locals are vowing to fight the impending decision.  Stockton East has alluded to extortion; I would like to turn that mention of extortion on its head.

Farmers, districts and cities in these riversheds, I bring you a message from the liberal environmentalist dictators.  Without any reservation, I speak to you on behalf of all the ignorant and power-hungry regulators.  I tell you this:  Right now, if you come up with a proposal to retire lands to meet these instream flows, we are extremely willing to be extorted.  Put together a proposal; ask for everything you want.  We would love to work out a good transition with you.

District managers!  Is there a lateral that never worked well for you?  A canal that has been losing capacity as subsidence changes the slope of the land?  Farmers!  Do you have land that never drained well?  Or is salting up?  Are you getting old, and not sure what to do with the farm?

Put together a plan to take some tens of acres that diverted from these rivers out of irrigated farming.  Ask for the State to fund conversion to intentional groundwater recharge or seasonal wetlands.  Ask for what you want.  Landowners, do you want to live on the grounds (not irrigating) until you are ready to leave?  Do you want your workers to be trained for the land’s new function?  Do you want your lands to be part of research with a university? Or a county park? Or converted to solar power generation?  Ask.  Any cooperative partnership to retire irrigated lands to help meet these instream flows would be met with open arms and probably grant funds.

I understand that the local districts have to bluster and fight these instream flow requirements.  I think it is good to have this fight.  If the laws protecting fish flows aren’t ever used or don’t hold up, there’s no point in having them.  But I predict these recommended instream flows will be upheld.

If so, local water districts, how do you want change to come to your district?  Suddenly, with no thought of what comes next?  Land prices crashing; bankruptcy determining who leaves and who stays? Or is there anything you want (recharge lands, habitat to grow some damn fish so the regulators don’t always try to solve fish problems with flow, land for carbon sequestration, solar power generation)?  Is there anything that would make this bearable for landowners (life tenancy, slow transition times, re-training their people)?  If there is, put together a plan and ask for everything you want.  You would be shocked at how willing the State would be to support an affirmative proposal to convert land to help meet these instream flows.

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Two annoying myths about “agriculture”.

Dr. Sunding’s most recent cost-benefit analysis of the AroundDeltaWaterGo has some exciting tidbits that you’ll be reading in the news soon.  I’d like to call out one small item to make a different point about rhetoric:

waterfixcba2

Look!  The AroundDeltaWaterGo helps some farmers and hurts others.  Choosing to build the ADWG is a choice to favor some regions of farming.  Farming in California is not a single thing with an On/Off switch.  A decline in acres farmed is not ‘the end of California agriculture’.  Retiring an objectively large amount of ag land (say 3 million acres) would still leave an objectively large amount of ag land (six million acres).  I would like to see some real pushback against the rhetoric that lumps all regions and types of farming, because that obscures the choices I wish we were making.

The last point I quoted above brings up another myth about California agriculture that I’d like to go away.  Why should California be devoting so many irreplaceable resources to feeding everyone else?  Some dude said at the Israel*-California Water Conference**:

To me this is really a profound opportunity to do something for the whole world,” Mr. Thebaut said.  “The population of the planet is projected to be 10 billion people by 2050, and consequently food security and international security is at stake.  The farms in California throughout the Imperial Valley, the Central Valley, and along the coast, really supply a minimum of one-third of the food supply of this country.  The country’s population is right now about 324 million people, and it’s projected to be 438 million by the mid-century, so consequently the responsibility of the agriculture industry to be able to meet these demands is profound.”

Why?  The Great Plains could be farmed for grains and vegetables instead of corn and soy.  We do not have to meet increasing demand for cheap meat (wine, nuts), even if people want it.  Why is it California’s responsibility to feed as many people as we are at the cost of our own rivers?  California also has endemic species and ecosystems that are real nice.  Why isn’t is it our responsibility to preserve those, when food can be produced elsewhere? This banal, unexamined rhetoric (farming is all or nothing, we should produce all possible food) doesn’t help make hard choices.

 

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Good work, Legislature.

Mr. Fitchette’s most recent post uses “sustainable” differently than I do, but that’s fine.  I want to make a different point.

The argument that ‘Farming cannot continue to exist if society forces us to internalize our externalities’ is not an argument in favor of farming.  It is an argument against farming.  What these farmers are saying here:

this brings me to the recent passage of a bill that eliminates the exemptions to overtime rules for farm workers. Farm groups called this the “death nail” for agriculture. …

Immediately after the bill was passed in Sacramento a couple dairy producers I know took to social media to say “that’s it!” They’re done.

means: our business model depends on people who are in general poorer than landowning farmers donating part of their labor to the business.

That is bullshit.  I am very proud of California for eliminating the farmworker exemption.

 

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Political power is no longer enough.

A West Side grower writes a post on the TheHill, bemoaning Congress’s lack of action.  (I should say that the author has been personally generous to me, a couple times.)  Most of the post is the standard advocacy position of West Side growers, which we are familiar with.  I’m more interested in what the post reveals about political power: that it isn’t enough anymore.  Political power without the backing of Science or popular support cannot move these bills.  Maybe all three are required, I don’t know.  But all of their access (testifying before Congress, toady Representatives, expensive lobbyists) isn’t getting the job done for the West Side growers.

Further, that kind of political power is all they have to throw at this problem.  Look:

Absolutely nothing is no longer acceptable. Congress needs to pass legislation that solves this decades-long problem. If they do not, absolutely nothing is what they should expect from us in return.

I’m not in those circles, so I can only guess what that means.  That wealthy West Side growers will give politicians less money?  Won’t host SJV fundraisers?  No using their small planes to get around?  I only speculate.   But they cannot buttress their demands with anything from the other realms of power.  They do not say: we will PROVE that Temperance Flats provides cost-effective water.  Our scientists will PROVE that the problems in the Delta are from Sacramento’s regional sanitation district.  TWENTY THOUSAND MILLION people will Tweet that they love us.  They don’t have those forms of power, so they can’t exercise them.  They have literally all the political access and power that money can buy, but that kind of power alone is no longer enough to convert their preferred policies to laws.  How frustrating for them.

 

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Addressing drought impacts: water or money?

My post below illuminates the most common form of drought mismanagement.  In my observation, when a drought is pending, the newly appointed* drought manager thinks: where can I find water?  This distracts them for the remainder of the drought, because in a drought there is very little water to be found.

Instead, the first thing the newly appointed drought manager should do is divide drought problems into two kinds: there is the kind that requires water and the kind that can be fixed with money.  You can tell the difference by the following test: if I dropped a million dollars in cash on the problem, would it go away?  Problem: salmon are cooking in the too-warm Sacramento River.  If I dropped a million dollars into the river, that would not solve the problem.  That drought problem requires the unique properties of water.  We should reserve the scarce resource with unique properties for this type of problem.  Problem: farmworkers are suffering from lack of farm jobs.  If I dropped a million dollars into their town, the problem of suffering would go away for a while, possibly for as long as the drought.  That drought problem can be addressed by something less unique and valuable than water; in a drought, we should use the more common resource to fix it.

 

*They are always newly appointed.

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Give them money.

Water Deeply: You also plan to look at emotional distress related to drought. That isn’t easily quantified.

Schwabe: I think that’s what is going to be really unique about what we will tease out of this. Typically, economists have looked in the past at how the loss of social and economic resources impact health.

There are expectations about whether I’m going to have a job this summer or not, and what that means for my ability to put food on the table, or give my son or daughter resources to go to school. Those expectations can increase the stress levels within my system. Increases in stress can impact my bodily systems, maybe lower my immune system and add wear and tear both mentally and physically, which can lead to disease and death. We will look for cases where we don’t necessarily observe a change in the social or economic resources that have been available to people, but we still see health impacts.

Water Deeply: What do you hope your research will lead to?

Schwabe: My first goal is to provide a little more light in terms of what are the relationships between adverse weather events and health. Secondly, if we do find the relationship, look at how it is influenced by water policy. …

Water Deeply: You have stated that you hope this research leads to a ‘new era of health policy.’ What do you mean by that?

Schwabe: Health is influenced by a whole range of other types of policies that end up being correlated with health or causing health impacts.

So when the State Water Resources Control Board or Department of Water Resources are thinking about water allocations, we want to make them aware, depending on the results of our study, whether their allocations will have impacts on not only agricultural production rates and fish mortality, but also on human health, and where the stressors or spikes might be that they might be able to address. So in that sense, bringing health policy into water policy – providing that evidence.

Look, I am glad for a comprehensive look at the public health effects of drought.  I’d like to see more on mental health for ranchers especially.  But the policy solution above is misguided.  I fully acknowledge that people get anxious when faced with uncertainties and that anxiety has health effects.  But California has a particularly variable climate, rapidly becoming more variable.  Providing water will not be a resilient solution.  If we decide to make policies to protect people in the farm economy from drought anxiety, the solution is to give them money in dry years.

Look at the chain of events that would be needed to alleviate this predicted form of anxiety.  In a dry year, the State water agencies become aware that they have to make a trade-off between healthy working rivers and the health well-being of farmer and farmworkers.  They weigh health impacts and choose to allocate more water to farmers (sacrificing something else that people value).  Farmers then choose to farm, and maybe decide to hire the otherwise anxious people.  (This doesn’t alleviate all the anxiety. The beginning of the planting season comes before the end of the wet season; two months of uncertainty are unavoidable.)  This is some trickle-down bullshita very attenuated chain of events.

You know what would really alleviate harmful anxiety over dry years?   A program that predictably fallows land and pays people directly to retain the capacity to farm in the wet years. I argue for a core 4ish million acres (centered on the east side of the SJV and the Sac Valley) that always get farmed, with another million acres that gets farmed in normal years and another million acres to be farmed in wet years.  The wet year acreage is purely speculative; I wouldn’t offer any drought-resiliency money to people on those land.  But I bet it would reduce an awful lot of anxiety if farmworkers know that they’ll get cash money from California in years that are too dry to generate farm work.

The way to maintain health and resilience in our highly variable climate is to use wealth to buffer dry periods.  Use money, not water, wherever possible.

 

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What do Californians get in exchange for ‘feeding the world’?

Mr. Michelena, a West Side grower, writes a column for the Modesto Bee lamenting that Californians have abandoned the vision of “feeding the world.”  He ties that vision back to JFK, but I have never heard a coherent argument for why California should feed the world.  Why should California exhaust her limited natural resources to meet a relatively infinite demand?  This is before my time, but perhaps JFK’s motivations were altruism and the optimism of the 1950s.  (I find myself resentful of Eastern politicians who view western resources as trading chips, even for noble things.)

Even with the best of motivations, is there any limit to how far California should draw down her waters to feed the world?  Here are possible bookends: California feeds only herself, on perhaps a million acres of irrigated lands (about 3.5MAF/year), an amount that the natural environment could readily provide.  At the other bookend, California could attempt to meet world food demand; we could divert every river, drain our aquifers below the levels that are cost-efficient to pump, drain every dam every year, pay the increasing costs of generating new pieces of water that are clean enough to farm with.  Which end of the spectrum are we closer to now, with ag water consuming about 30MAF/year?  If we continue or expand the irrigated acreage to feed the world, when does each incremental unit of water diverted cost us something increasingly precious, like a creek or a species?  Somewhere on that spectrum of water diverted for agriculture, there must be a point where the trade-off in natural resources gets too high.  Mr. Michelena’s column is part of our larger conversation about where that line should be.  I personally believe we passed that line more than two decades ago.

But I have more questions about this concept, that California should feed the world.  We could use our excellent soils and abundant sunshine and limited water to feed the world.  But what will the world give us in exchange for that?  In exchange, will they send us cold rivers?  Or historic salmon runs, that we can witness and be thrilled for?  Will they send us millions of live smelt, to swim in our estuaries or even to be bait on our fishhooks?  Will they give us swimming holes in granite boulders?  No, they can’t do that.  In exchange for food, other places will give us money.  Money is nicely useful, although it cannot recreate the things we lose by diverting rivers.  Worse, this exchange takes a communal, public resource that almost all Californians get the benefit of (water in rivers, aquifers, estuaries) and turns it into a private resource that few (several thousand farmers) get the benefit of.

And here it is time to talk about how ugly this distribution of money has become.  The next economic argument is that those farmers move that money through the farm economy out to other Californians, who will be able to buy things they want more than the rivers they lost.  That is not true of all farming in the state.  It is true of some farmers, in some local economies.  But for most of the acreage in the western and southern San Joaquin Valley, the money from ‘feeding the world’ becomes concentrated among the already rich.  The Resnicks are the first among those, but there are many millionaires alongside them.  Today, with the way that wealth and farmland on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is currently distributed, “feeding the world” means turning rivers and canyons and fish that all Californians could visit into additional wealth for the already wealthy.  As it now stands, that doesn’t even mean wealth percolating through a local farm economy; it means that all Californians get back for the waters they lost is whatever philanthropy those wealthy few happen to pursue.  That may be a worthwhile deal for Angelenos who like art.  But most other Californians might choose differently, and I’d like the choice to be explicit.

 

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